13C last Sunday of July
Hosea 11:1-11 Psalm 107:1-9, 43 Colossians 3:1-11
Calvin Coolidge, our President in the 20’s, was a man of few words. His nickname, not surprisingly, was Silent Cal. One Sunday he returned from church and was asked, “What was the sermon about?” “Sin,” Coolidge answered. “Well, what did the preacher say about sin?” “He was against it,” answered Cal.
Luke tells a similar story about Jesus preaching against greed. Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Period. Luke’s Jesus does add a parable, though.
A wealthy farmer harvests a huge bumper crop. Rather than let it all rot, he plans on building bigger storage barns. His investment will provide retirement income so that others won’t have to drain their reserves to sustain him in his old age. And he can sit back, comfortable with his plenty and become a couch potato if he wants. And God says, “You’re a fool; this very night you die, and you can’t take all that with you.”
And the moral of the story is – what?
Let’s look at what Jesus is saying about greed here. Has the man done anything illegal? No. Has he taken advantage of legal loopholes or insider trading tips? No again. In fact, compared to some Wall Street wheeler-dealers, he’s a paragon of virtue. He hasn’t misled anyone, misrepresented anything, or tried to corner any markets.
So what has he done? Well, he’s simply set up his 401K. He’s a prudent risk taker. He’s an imaginative financial strategist. He’s actually a clean-nosed capitalist. And he doesn’t seem greedy.
Let’s step away from the parable for a moment and look at the world around us today. Where and when do we see greed? Well, what about when somebody eats all the cookies on the plate, leaving just crumbs for everyone else? Or eats all the grapes and leaves just the stems for everyone else? What about when a huge retail chain, one that pays low wages to desperate job seekers, what happens when that chain comes to town and squeezes out smaller independent businesses?
Basic to these and lots of other examples we could think of is the taking advantage of one’s own position to get ahead of others, or the taking of more of whatever one needs – or wants -- by practices that force others to go without.
The rich man in the parable doesn’t do any of that. Neither does the man in the crowd who wants his fair share of his inheritance – the man who asks the question that Jesus responds to with the Calvin Coolidge-like “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” What’s going on here?
How about one more example from American history – John D. Rockefeller, who gave money away by the millions. He was asked once, “Which is the most important million you ever made?” Said Rockefeller, “The next million.” That might say something about what drove his business practices – practices that ultimately led to the passing of this country’s anti-trust laws (in spite of his giving away millions).
It might shed some light on what worries Jesus in the request by the man who wants his fair share of the family inheritance. It may suggest why Jesus responds to this man with today’s parable.
Greed can apply to more than just stuff. Greed can show up as potential addictions, whether for the next million dollars, for fentanyl, for something as innocent sounding as solving one crossword puzzle after another (to the exclusion of doing whatever needs doing around the house – or working on a sermon. . . ), for watching as many sporting events as possible on television, for reading every novel Sue Grafton or James Patterson has written, again to the exclusion of doing things that really need to be done. Whether we’re talking about earning money, drug addiction, solving puzzles, catching games, or reading a gazillion novels, what they have in common is the interplay of the need to do something with the satisfaction of having done it; of effort with satisfying result – without which we are sure we cannot possibly live. And that’s the point. Without which we are sure we cannot live (figuratively). Is Jesus suggesting that such an interplay between the need to do something and the satisfaction of having done it can become an obsession? I know that might seem like a stretch, but bear with me.
Obsessions aren’t usually considered good things. Obsessions are misplaced priorities. That might be at the heart of Jesus’s concern about greed – our priorities. It’s not just about taking unfair advantage over others. It’s about the pursuit of self-satisfaction, of self-sufficiency that sets our priorities askew. It’s about leaving God out of the equation. I’ll say that again. It’s about leaving God out of the equation.
A theologian I enjoy reading is Madeleine L’Engle. In her book Stone for a Pillow she writes “It will . . . be a long time before we who call ourselves Christians will understand that God is One, that God is All, because we still worship many strange gods. When we set ourselves up as the only people in Creation who have the truth and who will inherit the Kingdom, we are worshiping the little god of our own pride.”
She goes on to say, “When we greedily and proudly count the money we have taken in on a Sunday at church, or pride ourselves on the funds we have sent into the mission field, we are in danger of worshiping the little gods of money and our own superiority.”
So the rich farmer is in danger of worshiping the little god of his agricultural prowess. And then God reminds him that everyone dies, and that we can’t take it with us. When God speaks (and this is God’s only actual speech in the parables of Jesus), when God speaks, he warns the rich man that what he regards as strategies for healthy growth are actually acquisitive tendencies that have metastasized. His greed, along with his self-satisfaction with what he has accomplished, is killing him. At least spiritually.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul defines greed as idolatry. What idol does the rich farmer worship? The idols of his bulging barns. And he’s not gonna share anything from them with anybody.
Share. As a noun, share is like my share. Share as a verb is opening our hands and giving it to others. The difference between the noun and the verb is like the difference between spiritual death and spiritual life. Couldn’t the rich man have used all that grain to feed the hungry in his area?
Let’s go back to Calvin Coolidge for just a moment. “What did he preach about?” “Greed.” “What did he say about greed?” “He’s against it.”
It’s here where tone of voice becomes very important – about how we hear Jesus’s voice as it’s directed to the rich man and to us. The voice isn’t condemning. Rather it’s compassionate.
While we might associate greed with arrogance, we also associate it fundamentally with insecurity. With apprehension. With anxiety.
Think about the generation that grew up during the Depression. Many of them became hoarders. I had relatives – my in-laws – who bought large amounts of flour, cornmeal, rice, dried beans – staples – and stored them in covered five-gallon buckets and bins. As they’d get buggy or just plain too old (the stuff in the buckets, not my in-laws) they threw them out, actually spreading it on the driveway. Then they’d buy more. They feared scarcity and were always prepared for it.
The only way to be free of all this fear would be to have total control of the world. And that, presumably, would require being God. Not my idea of a job that I’d want.
I think that in all his planning, the rich man is holding on to life for all he’s worth. And Jesus wants him, and the man in the crowd, and maybe even you and me, to release that grip, to open our hands. Like that bumper sticker we saw a lot of a few years ago: Let go, and let God.
A little farther along in Luke’s gospel Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give alms. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
However, being rich toward God does not mean giving all our money to charitable causes.
Because of the fact that having no money will turn us into charitable causes. Besides the fact that having no money will turn us into charitable causes, giving it all away could easily become yet one more anxious, futile expression of greed. Imagine: Look at me! I’ve got no money at all! I gave it all away! Am I rich toward God now or what? Oh. Wait a minute. Maybe that’s being greedy for God’s approval.
You know, God asks us not to worry about what we will eat nor what we will wear, because life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Don’t be afraid, Jesus tells us, because our Father’s good pleasure is to give us the Kingdom itself. We can trust that.
Greed, grasping greed, implies that we have no trust in the Lord our God. No trust in our God who might be heard saying, “Greed? I’m against it.”